While much important attention has been placed on the history of redlining in housing, as well as on disparities in education, health care, and economic opportunity, among other areas, the inequities built into our transportation system have largely gone without widespread acknowledgment, discussion or correction. But it is perhaps the area where government power has most effectively placed physical barriers between low-income and Black and brown communities and the rest of America.
The Rondo neighborhood in Minneapolis was bifurcated by a freeway, as were Black communities in Brooklyn and Queens (I-278), Syracuse (I-81), Staten Island (Staten Island Expressway), New Orleans (Claiborne Expressway), Los Angeles (I-10), Seattle (I-5), and the list goes on. It wasn’t just highways; these physical separations were an offshoot of the times, and they embedded in the DNA of American infrastructure a fundamental flaw of planning and design.
After four years of unsuccessful “Infrastructure Weeks,” it is exciting to see the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act approach the finish line. While I find this accomplishment laudable, I would like to offer some perspective on what has been done already and what the Congress can do to advance our equity goals—whether in this legislation or in the future.
At the outset, I want to make clear that this issue does not belong in the partisan vortex. If one believes in freedom, a casual survey of the development of American infrastructure will reveal that individual freedoms and property have been sacrificed to build the system we enjoy today. These sacrifices resulted in unjust enrichment to areas spared by the installation of American infrastructure. We are only now scratching the surface of how the transportation system, whether intentionally or not, has adversely impacted so many communities of color.
Our infrastructure developed in the way that it did under both Democrat and Republican control over decades and, one may even argue, centuries. Beneath the new energy for transportation equity is a great desire to promote basic American values and extend those values to all of our people. If we can correct past and present practices, advocates say, we can build infrastructure that speaks to a renewed aspiration for national unity. I agree. For our national infrastructure to emerge as not only among our strongest economic weapons but also as a source of national unity and pride, it will take national, state, and local leadership, Democratic and Republican, over many years.
Eight years ago, I took the helm of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). I am proud to have been confirmed 100-0, and I believe our agency lived up to the bipartisan confidence placed in me. We pushed hard for the most recent transportation bill, the FAST Act, which President Obama signed into law in late 2015. We put forth the first comprehensive guidance for integrating autonomous vehicles, new rules for commercial drones, DOT’s first (and hopefully not last) Smart City Challenge to encourage mid-size cities to invest in “smart” transportation systems, and we enacted the auto industry’s fuel efficiency standards that stood the test of the previous Administration. But it is perhaps our efforts to build a more equitable transportation system that most flew under the radar—and is where so much work remains to be done.
President Biden and Secretary Pete Buttigieg have rightly pointed to the importance of equity as a national transportation priority. Yes, there are promising new technologies in the field of transportation. Yes, we live with the ongoing pervasive threats posed by climate change. Yes, our national infrastructure needs to be upgraded. But we have to recognize that these problems can all be addressed while still perpetuating policies and practices that shaped our infrastructure in so many unfortunate ways. This is a moment to position the American people and our economy to be fully unleashed and, to do so, we must consider policies that tear down walls between our people and include everyone in the American Dream. Transportation has historically drawn bipartisan support. Transportation equity should, too.
We need to get comfortable talking about it. In the Obama Administration, the acceptable language for tackling equity was “ladders of opportunity.” We rarely, if ever, spoke about “equity” or “race” in the context of transportation. I did not quibble with the ladders euphemism, even though I suspected the people served by these programs never knew what it meant. Despite that, our actions left a roadmap. TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) grants were awarded in rural and urban America. I was as proud of the 18 bridges we built in Mississippi as I was of the dilapidated buses we replaced in Detroit. We put bike trails in Montana as well as in Los Angeles. We brought community leaders to the Department, walked them through the public input process, and gave them tools to influence the process more effectively. We worked with several communities and their state and local DOTs to reimagine infrastructure, which, in a previous generation, had destroyed vital neighborhoods. When Alabama attempted to close DMV locations in Black areas after passing voter identification legislation, we used Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to investigate and force the state to reverse course. I believed then, and still do today, that our efforts were critical building blocks to national economic and social unity. But we were working within the limited parameters of our executive authority.
I wish our Administration had leaned harder into the equity discussion as part of doing our work. If this work was important to the nation, and it was, we owed it to all Americans to tell them not only what we were doing but why. Just as we needed to speak directly to Black and brown communities about our efforts to undo past damage, we also needed to address the poor and struggling white American. We were working for them, too, and there are many projects approved by our Administration to evidence that. Even so, administrations come and go. Priorities change, and some important and transformative work can die on the vine. That’s why this moment matters—and why a further push on equity is needed. The scope of this challenge requires enduring commitment to ensure that the effort continues long into the future.
Why? Even with systematic improvements, consistent attention to equity and adequate funding, our physical infrastructure—roads, bridges, transit systems, rail, airports, and the like will be built, repaired or torn down one project at a time. Thus, under the best-case scenario, it will take years, decades even, before the system reflects a better balance of equity considerations.
Today, the USDOT toolbox is limited and can be expanded only through congressional action. Billions of dollars flow through the U.S. Department of Transportation annually, but most of the dollars are automatically directed to the states or local governments. Typically, states build highways, determine their routes, pick the contractors, manage public input, and so forth. While federal performance standards exist, the states literally grade themselves. With precious few strings attached to so much of the Department’s funding, and with fragmented decision-making, the federal government is impotent to do much more than suggest. As Secretary, I asked governors—Republican and Democratic—to publicly commit to three principles of equity in transportation that would be applied to all future projects. Only three were willing to do so. I would like to think, in light of recent events, that the number would be higher today.
Funding Projects That Promoted Equity
With the limited tools we had, we honed in on the areas where we had greater discretion. For example, when Congress gave the Department funding to issue grants, we could use criteria that included “opportunity” as a consideration when awarding grants. Beginning in 2015, we inserted equity (“opportunity”) considerations into the TIGER (now BUILD) program, transit capital investment grants, the Smart City Challenge, and a one-time bus and bus facilities initiative. Inclusion of this new criterion prompted a variety of responses from state project sponsors. Some did little more than vaguely assert that their projects promoted equity, while others really dug in and reimagined projects in fresh ways.
The Smart City Challenge proved to be one of the most innovative grant programs we did; it could easily have focused only on technology and not at all on equity. By including equity as one of many criteria, however, cities looked at a wide array of ways to make sure technology could reduce barriers to transportation. In the case of the eventual winner, Columbus, Ohio, a city with a serious infant mortality problem, Mayor Andrew Ginther and the local team took a thoughtful, innovative approach to tackling this issue. It included making apps available for people without smart phones, and without bank accounts or credit cards, so that they could use those apps to generate medical appointments and bus trips. Columbus’s leadership recognized that if they didn’t make their transportation system smart for their most marginalized citizens then it did not achieve their goals; success would therefore be measured by a lower infant mortality rate, which would be achieved through strengthening access to prenatal doctor appointments. I refer to the practice of writing equity criteria into grant-making as one of “teaching the system” to work better because project sponsors, in responding to such criteria, can develop a broader sense of how their work can create opportunity and connection within a community.
There is an important lesson here for the bipartisan infrastructure bill: While the $1 billion proposed for equity programs is a good start, the real mission should be ensuring that all of the investments bear the mark of a nation committed to healing itself through equity.
And while past injustices in Native American areas, Black communities, and Hispanic communities are clear, rural America too faces great inequities in its transportation access. We could not afford to perpetuate the artificial lines between urban and rural Americans, so we worked to demonstrate how opportunity can be promoted in both places. In rural Mississippi, our efforts helped 18 new bridges get built. We put new trails in Montana and Florida, and new highways in eastern Kentucky. These projects created “ladders of opportunity,” too.
Notwithstanding our efforts to push this issue using executive authority, there were entire categories of projects that fell more to the states and local governments. Upwards of 80 percent of sidewalk dollars flow from state and local budgets. The data, however, showed that fewer than half of low-income neighborhoods have adequate sidewalks. This statistic can be extrapolated to bike lanes and other pedestrian and bicycle features. Not coincidentally, pedestrian and bicycle deaths are highest in these communities. The federal government has no dedicated program to close this gap, but that can change, too.
We had other opportunity initiatives as well: Ladder Step and Every Place Counts engaged local and state departments of transportation to improve design and implementation practices across the country by identifying certain projects, old and new, and making them the connective tissue twenty-first century infrastructure should be. Moreover, we thought about making it easier for these agencies to hire people who live in underserved communities to build these projects. This led to a local hire initiative and new apprenticeship and training programs targeting women and people of color.
Some will say that the Department has a huge stick in Title VI, and it does. However, in my experience, it takes extraordinary circumstances and a White House willing to take on a fight to utilize it. We updated decades-old Title VI guidance and aggressively used this authority. When Alabama closed down federally supported drivers licensing offices in largely Black areas, we forced them to reopen. In a state that had just passed a voter identification bill, this action had the further benefit of ensuring that Black voters would not face a transportation barrier to obtaining an identification card. In Corpus Christi, Texas, we negotiated a settlement that relocated community members residing in the path of a new highway connected to a $1 billion bridge. This predominantly Black and brown community was already boxed in by a ship channel, refineries, and an interstate highway; the proposed highway would have meant complete isolation. The full exercise of Title VI power will require the strong backing of the Biden White House—and early indications are that they will, as we see another controversial project in Texas, I-45, undergoing Title VI review. Even so, the bar for Title VI is incredibly high—more lower grade tools are needed to correct course.
With the death of so many Black people at the hands of law enforcement, as well as renewed energy directed to rid our nation of its tortured history on race, there is an opening to do even more than we could five short years ago. The work of embedding equity and racial justice is clearly among President Biden’s and Secretary Buttigieg’s top priorities. As well, we have a broad constituency of Americans who do not want to carry past divisions into the future.
As the resources begin to flow and projects begin to get built, communities will grapple with what they should build, why it should be built, and how to go about building it. We must also have a real debate about what transportation equity means and what role the federal government should play in promoting it. Here are a few additional policy ideas intended to broaden the thinking about transportation equity:
- Renewed federal operating support of transit agencies. The level of transit funding in the proposed legislation is, at present, a point of contention. Let me complicate the matter further by pushing for an expansion in how future funding can be put to use. Transit agencies fill a gap that no other transportation provider can fill: accessible and affordable transportation for masses of people. The federal government has long since abdicated its role in supporting the operations of these systems. Supporting transiton a long-term basis will relieve some of the burden of operating these systems within cities. Moreover, there will be initiatives to promote free transit in many areas of the country. The federal government has an interest in every single American having access to jobs, education, housing, and health care. Transit is a critical resource to that end.
- Reset and build upon existing inclusion programs. Many minority- and women-owned construction firms have entered federal programs designed to launch greater diversity in the field. While some growth has occurred, many of these firms are stuck in the very programs designed to help them. For many disadvantaged businesses, the net-worth requirements are so low that many good businesses become ineligible before they achieve stability. For this reason, almost none of the minority-owned and disadvantaged businesses could ever graduate to become prime contractors because they are “locked in” as small businesses and reliance upon larger companies to choose them in the bidding process. By now, we should have seen numerous national firms emerge to compete with incumbent contractors. We have not. That needs to change, and a pathway to such growth within federal programs can be developed. Moreover, bonding requirements exclude many from participation at all because many firms capable of performing cannot afford the bonds. There should be greater government assistance to back these bonds, a longer glide path for businesses that add value, and an emergence of diverse firms that land prime contracts all across America. To be clear, this is not a request for guarantees; it is a plea for opportunity.
- Establish equity standards and enforce them. The federal government transfers large sums of money to states and local communities and yet delegates much of the decision-making to those entities. To the extent that performance measures have been attached to federal funds, states largely grade their own progress. Let’s apply some equity-focused performance measures to entities receiving federal transportation funds. For example, we should expect diversity on transportation boards and among leadership of public transportation staff. Most states have an appointed transportation board, and those boards generally lack diversity. Given the historical record, there is a strong case for the federal government torequire states to include women and people of color by withholding funds if they fail to do so. When it comes to public input and construction contracts, the federal government should penalize states that run perfunctory input process or tolerate failure in their minority participation programs. The USDOT also needs a range of penalties to impose for such failures beyond the nuclear option of terminating federal funding altogether. While this ultimate tool should be in the mix, I have found that lesser penalties can achieve the desired outcome and minimize political drama.
- Launch a federal task force to examine bias in new transportation technologies. Advances in computing power and emerging technologies are beginning to create new opportunities to apply machine learning in a multitude of ways that could potentially enhance people’s lives and improve the way we move around our communities. However, there are substantiated concerns about algorithmic bias and discrimination embedded in some models, even if unintentional. Policymakers should better understand the design and development of machine learning models and algorithms deployed in the transportation sector. This is an opportunity for government to encourage increased collaboration between industry, academia, and equity groups, and advance principles of ethicaland humanistic design and algorithms in order to instill greater public trust in the use of transportation
- Create a national planning commission. As the Bible says, without vision, the people perish. We need a team of experts who keep America’s infrastructure vision on the horizon. I would suggest a Chief National Planner (think: Jerome Powell) with a term of 10 years and a board—just like the Federal Reserve. This group would work to assess the needs, priorities, policies, and practices of our nation’s system overall. While I imagine the work of this group to be plenary, we lack a consistent, coherent voice on our national transportation system. America would be well served by someone who could keep the discussion about our transportation needs, and its connection to our economic growth, quality of life, and national healing, well-examined and fact-based between administrations. There are excellent people out there who would do a marvelous job of helping us think about how the different parts of our transportation system fit together. Mitchell Silver, a former commissioner for the New York City Parks Department and a planner by profession, is one such person but there are many who would be outstanding. Most cities have a planning commission of some sort. Why not America? We already know that our national economy is concentrated around 11 mega regions. The transportation systems in each of these mega regions is governed by different states, different cities and towns, and different planning organizations. Administrations come and go, as do their priorities. We need longer-term thinking at the national level to keep us on track.
- Support more local funding and hiring. Regional planning organizations should be allotted much more funding and ability to jumpstart projects than is afforded today. Rather than running their funding allocations through the states, I would recommend experimenting with direct funding with strong performance standards.We piloted a local hiring program during the Obama Administration that enabled project sponsors to employ people who lived close to transportation projects. One such hire, LeDaya Epps, a single mom in Los Angeles, took advantage of this program; she got trained and helped build the Crenshaw Light Rail segment in her own neighborhood. We should make every effort to hire people who live nearby and engage firms that value diversity in every way, including previously incarcerated individuals. Secretary Buttigieg has reinstated this pilot program after the Trump Administration scrapped it; it should be codified into law and made permanent.
- A commission to review past practices and resources to address economic damage. There is significant evidence that, in the early days of the Interstate Highway System, federal dollars were utilized to implement slum clearance programs that dispossessed people not only of their property but also of the real value of that property. In a nation that values property as a linchpin of wealth creation and dignity, it would be shameful if, as I believe the evidence will show, local and state governments imposed eminent domain and applied the post-eminent domain values to compensate property owners. A commission could be formed to retrace our steps and, if necessary, award proper compensation to families that were setback by this nation’s transportation progress. We should examine every mode of transportation for similar past practices.
- Initiate a federal building program. Not since the interstate highway itself has the federal government launched a massive building campaign to upgrade American infrastructure. A national committee of experts has already assembled a list of projects of national significance at the demand of Congress. The time has come to fund these projects through a dedicated program, and rather than passing the funds throughto the states to construct them, the federal government should build at least some of them, especially those that cross state lines and find themselves sidelines by politics and election cycles. The Hudson River tunnels and the Brent Spence Bridge are two examples, but there are many more. Indoing so, the federal government could develop and model best practices of context sensitivity and community input needed at the state and local levels, design its own inclusion programs, and literally Build Back Better.
This is not an exhaustive list, and I recognize that many of these ideas may be panned as politically unworkable. My intention here is to push for a real debate on this topic with real policy ideas that will significantly move the needle. I am extremely encouraged by the Biden Administration’s call for equity—from transportation infrastructure, to broadband, to housing, to reinforcing the electric grid and to greening our transportation system. They have given momentum to a long overdue debate about equity in infrastructure and efforts to drive action through policy by giving the USDOT a more expanded role in building bridges between Americas, real and metaphorical.
Many have said that now is the time for difficult conversations, but that’s not exactly right. It’s a time for difficult actions. Those actions will spur important conversations in the context of actually getting things done on the ground. Making our transportation system equitable will take decades and will occur one project at a time. That said, setting the intention for corrective action and beginning the work anew is one of the great promises of the Biden Administration. But it is not their work alone. We, as Americans, have to understand it not as a fashionable political exercise but as a core principle of growth and development from now on. It is work that holds promise to knit our country together more cohesively than ever before, and for that reason, it must be more than a Democratic or Republican imperative. It must be an American one.